A sighting can set social media abuzz.
Someone spots a bobcat in their backyard, and they take a quick smartphone pic and immediately post it to Facebook. The likes and comments pour in. On the many posts I've seen, comments range from mistaking a bobcat for a mountain lion, ocelot, or some African cat to an overarching disbelief that bobcats even exist anywhere outside of the most isolated and rural areas.
Canon R5 camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/640 sec. @ f4, ISO 400
"I didn't quite know what I was looking at when I first saw it," says Childress, Texas resident Gary Clark. Clark, who lives in a ranch-style home on a half a block in the southwest part of town that's flanked by a thin strip of greenbelt, saw the bobcat one evening when he was in his backyard checking on his chickens. While his poultry flock was safe, he was surprised to see a bobcat in town in his backyard.
"At first, I thought it was a big house cat," he says. "The longer I looked, I realized it was a bobcat." Clark is no stranger to wildlife. A lifelong hunter, he's spent plenty of time afield in the Texas wilds and is qualified to know a bobcat when he sees one. So there it was, crouched down and trying to hide in the tall grass just feet from other residential homes.
"The good news is my chickens were safe," he says. "I am unsure if he was looking for an easy meal or just passing by. At any rate, it was surprising just seeing him."
Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/800 sec. @ f5.6, ISO 800
At about the same time, golfers at the local Golf Course saw a bobcat regularly hanging out along the fairways. Ironically, the Childress High School mascot is the bobcat. People interpreted the frequent sightings by describing them as anything from a novelty to a sign of good luck for the local high school teams.
While the sightings - for a time - were frequent, they were chiefly benign. Golfers playing the front nine would see the cat hunting along a creek and then disappear into the brush only to be seen again a few days later. Mostly, bobcat sightings in populated areas like the Childress golf course or Clark's neighborhood are a novelty. Now and then, however, cats can attack.
In mid-April 2019, foxnews.com reported that a golfer was attacked and subsequently hospitalized for lacerations after a bobcat attacked him on a golf course in Connecticut. Earlier in the day, the same bobcat was believed to have attacked a nearby horse. Eventually, the bobcat was located and killed. It should be noted, however, that this type of attack is extremely rare. But it underscores that bobcats live all around us, and most of us don't even realize it.
The Facts on 'Cats
In North America, six cat species roam the wild. Aside from the bobcat (the most widespread), there is the cougar, margay, jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, and the Canadian lynx. In Texas, all of the cats are native to the state except for the Canadian Lynx. Of all the cat species found in Texas, the bobcat is the most common as it can find suitable habitat almost anywhere. Texas is home to two subspecies of bobcats: the desert bobcat, located in the west and northwest part of the state, and the Texas bobcat, which ranges over the rest of the state. According to Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the two are so similar, it takes an expert to tell them apart.
A highly adaptable species, the bobcat is a primarily solitary hunter. It is home in small woodlots, scrub brush habitats, urban edges, swamps, and desert environments. It is truly an adaptable species. Like their domestic cousins, bobcats tend to be territorial and establish home ranges where they live and hunt. They'll mark these ranges with urine markings and clawing trees. The range varies from male to female and fluctuates depending on the season and food availability. A Kansas study revealed that resident males have ranges of roughly 8 square miles while females roam less than half that area.
In size, you'll find some variation in males and females. The adults range in size from about 20 inches to 50 inches long from the head to the base of the tail. Bobcats stand from 12 to 24 inches high at the shoulder and weigh an average of 40 pounds for males and 21 pounds for females. There is some variation in the overall size of bobcats as individuals living in higher latitudes tend to be heavier than their southern counterparts.
Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/1250 sec. @ f4.5, ISO 1000
The coat ranges from gray to brown and sometimes with really pronounced spots. Individual color varies slightly throughout the year as they grow their coats out for the winter and shed the heavy fur layer for summer. A hallmark feature of a bobcat is its erect, tufted ears that have a white bar that horizontally intersects the mostly black back of the ear.
The one feature that confuses many people when they see a bobcat is the tail. I've been with people who swear they've seen a mountain lion when, in fact, they witnessed a bobcat. It seems many people believe that a bobcat has no tail. However, they have a short tail around six inches long. Bobcats, especially urban bobcats, often get confused with other species like mountain lions when pictures of them make the rounds on social media.
Canon 1D Mark IIn camera, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens, 1/640 sec. @ f4, ISO 400
A silent, stealthy hunter, the bobcat is adept at catching various prey, but they prefer rodents, rabbits, small birds, and mammals. They hunt slowly and silently, stalking their prey and attacking in a short burst. Bobcats are so adept at stalking that I've witnessed them come within feet of me, and I never knew they were in the vicinity before.
While rare, bobcats occasionally hunt livestock and poultry. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, bobcats killed 11,100 sheep nationwide in 2004 - comprising 4.9% of all sheep predator deaths. However, some kills are likely misidentified since bobcats are ardent scavengers of livestock killed by other animals.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department states, "…their [bobcat] predation on deer is a controversial subject. Although studies have shown that most of the deer found in bobcat stomachs is carrion, an adult bobcat is strong enough to bring down an adult deer… If a bobcat comes across a fawn, it will not hesitate to make a meal of it."
On average, a bobcat lives to around seven years old. Typically, two to four kittens are born to a female in the spring after a two-month gestation. By winter, many of her cubs will be hunting alone.
In 2017, Julie Golla completed a master's thesis titled Urban Bobcat (Lynx Rufus) Ecology in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas Metroplex. In her study, Golla states, "Urban carnivores are of special concern because of their potential effects on human health, well-being, and livelihoods. Bobcats (Lynx rufus) is a top predator in several urban areas across the United States and a potential contributor to human-carnivore conflicts…"
Canon 40d camera, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, 1/1000 sec. @ f4, ISO 500
For a year, she studied the spatial data on ten GPS-collared bobcats in highly urbanized areas of Dallas and Fort Worth to understand how bobcats use what little green space urban areas offer and how they interact with people living nearby.
She discovered that, on average, all urban bobcats have a home range of 1.77 square miles or about 1,132 acres. Males roam a bit more and have a range of around 1,500 acres, while females roam about 859 acres.
Golla reports, "Bobcats in DFW have significantly smaller home ranges and occur at higher densities than rural bobcat populations. Home ranges were also slightly smaller and densities higher than the most closely similar peri-urban bobcat studies. These differences likely arise due to the abundant urban prey species the DFW landscape provides despite limited space and habitat for bobcats. The dense urban development surrounding this population of bobcats may also discourage dispersing from the area, contributing to higher densities."
Her research provides information to help biologists manage urban bobcats by providing insight into how bobcats live amongst people.
Curiously, the bobcat population density in DFW is higher than those reported in other bobcat studies. A 2006 study showed a bobcat density of about every 500 acres in a rural wildlife area of Texas. In the heavily urbanized DFW metroplex, the overall density was a bobcat per 450 acres.
Golla attributes the higher bobcat densities in the urban areas likely relates to the limited amount of space and dispersal opportunities for resident bobcat populations. She also states that the increased bobcat density refers to the higher density of urban prey species.
"Indeed, GPS-collared bobcats in this study were observed hunting squirrels and waterfowl from uniquely urban features such as golf courses and landscaped apartment complexes," she states.
From the numbers, the report is clear that bobcats live under most of our noses, and we rarely ever notice them. If the density numbers are accurate across the entire metroplex, as many as 10,000 bobcats may go about their daily lives in an area with 7.5 million people.
It is a secret life that fascinates me.
The Bobcat Test
I live in a rural setting. Just north of the small town of Childress, my family makes our home on a small piece of rolling plains rangeland where, every day, we see the nuances of nature reveal itself. We've seen everything from whitetail deer, wild hogs, bobwhites, coyotes, and other small mammals and birds. Curiously, we've never seen a bobcat around the place.
Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, 1/25 sec. @ f9, ISO 800
To test my hypothesis that bobcats lead a secret life around us, I enlisted the help of a local rancher. I asked him to let me have any dead livestock he may encounter so I could bait animals and monitor what feeds on them. At another time, I found a freshly killed deer that died of unknown causes. On both occasions, I placed a custom-made camera on each kill. The camera is a digital SLR with a custom-made passive infrared sensor. Like commercially available game cameras, each time it senses motion, the camera trips.
I placed the camera on the kills and walked away for several days. When I returned, the memory cards were full. A bobcat began feeding within a few hours of me setting up the contraption. The calf was about 100 yards from my house. The deer was about 150 yards away. There are bobcats all around, and we never saw them.
For several days, I'd check the camera and replace the memory card. At times, the carcasses were covered in grass - typical bobcat behavior as the feline tries to hide any food source in which it is still feeding. Sometimes, the carcasses were bare. It was a sure sign that I scared the bobcat away as it fed.
When I analyzed the images, my suspicions were confirmed. According to the time stamps embedded in the metadata of each image, the bobcat fed both day and night. You could even tell when one of our family came home or was outside the house because the cat would pause from feeding and look in our direction.
Canon 40d camera, Tokina 12-24mm f2.8 lens, 2 sec. @ f5.6, ISO 800, off-camera flash
My favorite photo I took was when a bobcat was feeding, and she kept looking behind her in the pictures. Soon, her baby came to the carcass and began eating. Turns out we have at least three bobcats who roam around our property. Each is going about a secret life undetected by any one of us.
Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f2.8 lens, 3200/sec. @ f5.6, ISO 800